Obama’s Tightrope



Hat Tip: By Amina Luqman, Washington Post

The world felt topsy-turvy as I watched the presidential debate held at Howard University last week. Up seemed down and everything was out of sync as the front-runners for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, spoke. In this debate, as in others, we watched Obama remake the traditional persona of the black candidate and someone else take what might have been his place.

From the outset, it was clear that Barack Obama wasn’t going to be Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. For every rhythmic alliteration Jackson would have offered, Obama gave us pauses and sentences in paragraphs. For Sharpton’s quick wit and scathing candor, Obama offered even tones and grave calm. There was no push toward applause-filled endings. He begged for contemplation and understanding. Simple became complex, demands became propositions and “they” became “we.”

The average black American onlooker can’t help feeling proud but also just a little hurt watching Obama. Proud of his ability to traverse minefields on a national political landscape and hurt by what America demands of black candidates seeking public acceptance and trust. During the debate, black Americans in the audience sat, hands poised, yearning to applaud a black candidate able to articulate our passions and sense of injustice. We wanted to hear that he understood and loved us — not in the general, “we the people” sense but in the specific. Yet we know that with each utterance about injustice, each puff of anger or frustration about racism, we lose the very thing we seek: a viable black candidate. The closer Obama comes to us, the further he would be from winning the nomination and the presidency.

That is a reality of race and national politics in America. Part of Obama’s appeal to white America lies in his hopefulness. It’s in the way he looks toward a brighter future, and it’s in his promise to bring us all along.

Yet the subtext of his appeal is in what he does not say. It’s in his ability to declare that things must get better without saying who or what has made them bad. It’s how he rarely chastises and how he divides blame and responsibility evenly; white receiving equal parts with black, poor equal parts with rich. The “we” Obama has created leaves blank the space traditional African American candidates would have filled with passion or a clear articulation of the state of black Americans. It’s left some black voters unfulfilled and some white voters with a sense of acceptance and absolution from past wrongs and present-day injustices.

We are all watching Obama’s tightrope walk, his attempts to appeal to the white majority while maintaining some semblance of integrity regarding the plight of black Americans. It’s a heavy burden. In contrast, Hillary Clinton is on relatively sure footing. Obama must tilt away from clarity and passion about issues disproportionately affecting blacks while Clinton is free to perform the black candidate’s role. In last week’s debate, it was she who took on the traditional black candidate’s persona, she who was both passionate and rhythmic in her cadence. Her endings built to crescendos. Be it real or pandering, Clinton can openly connect and show solidarity with black Americans in ways that Obama cannot.

There is no better example than Clinton’s comment about the disproportionate effect HIV has on black communities. She said that if “HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.” For Obama to have said the same words in the same fiery manner could have been political suicide. By forfeit, Clinton essentially becomes the black candidate; it’s not a space America would allow Obama to fill.

Not long after Obama announced his candidacy, the buzz in the media was, “Is Obama black enough?” Many black Americans privately laughed at this question. We know that it takes only a slip of the tongue about slavery’s legacy or reparations, a hiccup about institutional racism or paying special attention to the needs of black Americans, and suddenly the love would be gone. We know that the question has less to do with black America than with whether white America trusts that Obama is not too black for its political taste.

We laugh at the question of Obama’s blackness because we live with a version of Obama’s tightrope dance every day. We do the same dance in our workplaces, with our supervisors, our neighbors and our college classmates. In that way we know Obama couldn’t be more like us, he couldn’t be more black. We along with Obama know that even the most skilled tightrope performance may not be enough to ensure that you land on your feet.

36 thoughts on “Obama’s Tightrope

  1. It’s only a tightrope if you assume that black America is really asking, demanding for something FROM Barack Obama. In fact, we are not. So the bar is low, the supposed tightrope is an inch off the ground, and Obama is free to do whatever pleases his funders, who, to put it more precisely than the article, are wealthy business interests who don’t want to see any boats rocked. Not on tort reform, foreign policy, investor rights agreements dressed up as “free trade”, not on biotechnology or much of anything else.

    The premise of the article is junk. Obama isn’t walking a tightrope trying to plase black and white America. Many, if not most black Americans have already bought the hype that this is the best we can do and the best we can ask for, freeing Senator Obama to run away from us and our issues almost as fast as he can.

  2. rikyrah

    Thanks SB for posting this.

    This was a very nice way of answering the question that I asked you last week about what would have happened if Obama had said what Hillary had said at the debate.

  3. Mr. Bruce, rikyrah,

    “Yet the subtext of his appeal is in what he does not say. It’s in his ability to declare that things must get better without saying who or what has made them bad. It’s how he rarely chastises and how he divides blame and responsibility evenly; white receiving equal parts with black, poor equal parts with rich. The “we” Obama has created leaves blank the space traditional African American candidates would have filled with passion or a clear articulation of the state of black Americans. It’s left some black voters unfulfilled and some white voters with a sense of acceptance and absolution from past wrongs and present-day injustices.”

    That don’t do it for me,Y’all. Not at all. No, Ma’am-No, Sir. It is the crux of my problem-the so-called evenhandedness-which has also doubled as a campaign finance strategy the catholic church used to utilize called indulgences. The church, in essence, sold absolution. I’m not having it. What Black politician you know worth a damn is capable of raising $58 million without sellin’ out. Most couldn’t do it if they had 1000 street phamacists and prostitutes workin’ the corners.

  4. It doesn’t do it for me, either.

    Bruce is my editor and he’s as familiar with Obama as is anyone from the South Side. So, take it to the bank what he says about Obama. For me, at that point in the 2004 Democratic Campaign where he said “There is no Black America” I wanted to know what he was smoking and where I could get some of that “Wacky Tabacky.”

    It is delusional to think we can all blend in and sing “kuumbayah” without going through the personal pain and struggle to respect one another’s history and culture, without having that submerged by folk who are “uncomfortable” the minute you mention race or culture. There’s an inherent laziness there that says, “Let’s just go along, because it’s hard work to do the actual process that leads to that color-blind society everyone wants.”

    Diversity means celebrating everyone in their own uniqueness, learning them and developing a strategy for the incorporation of all of that, without having to submerge, erase or apologize for your culture or your history. It makes you who you are, and it honors someone else who is different in culture and history than you.

    And since Obama hasn’t learned that, he walks a low tightrope, as Bruce said, but nonetheless, it is a tightrope of opinion. If he pisses off Corporate America, his money gets cut. If he comes off as a Black Man, he’s accused of being the second coming of Stokely Carmichael (or Kwame Ture, take your pick).

    If he had set his own course, as opposed to listening to his consultants (who knows as much about the African-American community as the late Jerry Falwell did), he could win or lose on the merits. He allowed all this debate about who he was, when the reality is, he could have settled the matter by being forthright and not engage in the triangulation he does so well.

  5. I still think my colleague Glen Ford nailed his relationship to black politics and (the lack of ) black expectation here

    “…Obama’s siren song to African Americans is of an entirely different nature. He does not have to sing it; we provide the music, ourselves. The lyrics and melody are actually alien to Obama, but he has heard them off and on in his strange sojourn through life, and senses their power to sway us. He understands that most of us will demand nothing from him – not even elemental allegiance. His “Black” flank, he knows, is covered, while his white “progressive” flank is neutralized and confused by Black failure to recoil at his betrayals of the most basic elements of social democracy….”

  6. Mr. Bruce,

    After having watched politics for nearly twenty-five years, I am flabbergated by the ignorance and shallowness displayed by the bulk of the African American electorate. Not an election passes that white interest groups and their affilliated pacs don’t demand something from our elected politicians. We, on the other hand, demand nothing. It’s time to demand something meaningful-something powerful-something which uplifts us as a diaspora-something black.

    Sadly, the brotha ain’t prepared for that and neither are his corporate benefactors.

  7. john in california

    Let me preface my comment by stating I am white and a Kucinich supporter.
    I think I am like a lot of lefty dems that are alternately hopeful and skeptical about Obama. I took six months off work to work on the Jackson campaign and well remember how hard it was to get agreement about him w/in the local (San Jose, CA) black community. On the one hand, as I went door to door to register voters, some African- Americans were very enthusiastic w/o knowing or caring about his positions and others very skeptical because they felt he was an opportunist, who built his rep on MLK’s grave. Then there were competing interests as to who would be the ‘black’ community representative to his campaign. Would it be an A.M.E. or a Baptist preacher? All of this against a backdrop of a national campaign that couldn’t schedule anything a week in advance (Donna Brazille, anyone?). So, when I look at Obama’s very slick, very mainstream, very professional campaign, I say “Hallelujah!”. Of course, then I listen to him and I say ” ho-hum..” Nixon was more socially progressive. But then I watch something like a focus group on CSPAN and all these white Republicans and Independents , male and female, feel comfortable with him in a way they never could or would have with Jackson, no matter how many cows on a Kansas farm he milked. Leadership is a funny thing. It is often more about what followers invest in the leader than what the leader gives the followers. A lot of people are willing to invest a lot of hope and goodwill in Obama, probably a lot more than A guy with my politics thinks he deserves. ( I can’t help remembering how disappointed I was in Collin Powell’s joining the bush administration. How could he think he would be anything but a tool. ) I am not naive enough to think Kucinich will win, even though he is right on all the issues, and I do not want another Clinton presidency, so that leaves Edwards and Obama. Edwards is better on health care and workers rights and immigration (an area that should be of major concern for inner city African- American young people who should have been able to count on construction, medical care, sanitation, public transit and post office jobs that didn’t require a four year degree, yet have been kept wage low and applicant high by immigrants, both legal and illegal) .
    Will an Obama presidency change race relations in this country or will it send a message from all those focus group types that says, “So, we voted for a black man, now ‘you’ have a black president so can you shut up about prejudice?” or will his constant presence make both white and black people be willing to give the other the benefit of the doubt. One thing I know for sure, demographics don’t lie and sometime in the next 40 years white will be a minority, as will blacks. And if I’m still alive, I think I will have an ironic chuckle if blacks and white band together as American “originals’ to fend off the ’Latinizing’ of American culture. Anyway, I always enjoy your take on things, Mr. Skeptical. And your commenters, so thanks.

  8. The campaign finance issue is the 500 pound gorilla in the room that the MSM always wants to ignore.

    So how can you fault a playa…when the game is rotten to the core?

  9. incredible??

    I cannot believe what I am reading….especially sb. Obama has done exactly what is necessary and true. Who is the ONLY candidate to have worked in urban areas as opposed to just talk about it? Obama. Who is the ONLY candidate to have stayed where he came from regardless of money? Obama. Crabs….that is the problem with our people. We never lift anyone up, only drag them down. What more could he have done? What would you like him to do? How can you acknowledge racism and see a brotha with a legitimate chance to change things to our community FROM THE OVAL OFFICE and yet you’d wish to turn your back on him? That is unacceptable. If we end up with a Clinton or Guiliani(because her negatives are so high)…we(you) deserve to be forgotten because we never will know what COULD have been with one of us in the Oval Office….One final thought, we have had 43 white presidents, how well off are you now? Where could you be if 44 was one of us WHO HAS PROVED THAT IS WHERE HIS HEART IS….?

  10. @ incredible; if the truth must be admitted we are all most likely gonna end up voting for the man, but it would just be a little nice if he didn’t have to pander quite so hard to Republican-leaning surburbanites about them not having anything to “worry about” with him as president, if you catch my drift…

  11. incredible??

    ernesto, I completely agree with you. However, his commitment to the black community is deeply rooted prior to running for any elected office. HRC (and edwards who made his money FIRST and then decided to give something back) just pander. I find that deeply offensive. That shows me where your heart is….not aligned with the needs of black america. he proved it to Dr. West and Dr. Dyson….i am deeply committed to giving him the opportunity to represent us in a greater sense

  12. incredible, there’s one more thing that I have a problem with, namely the “27 million reasons” why he is no more likely than Clinton to make significant changes to the status quo. This campaign finance issue almost assures us that a President Obama will have his hands effectively tied in TRULY representing us.

  13. Anybody who supports Barack Obama should obviously be concerned whether Kos is a Republican agent or an agent of the CIA. It would explain why Kos always criticizes Obama and spreads the meme that “Obama hasn’t shown enough leadership.” Maybe Kos says that because it is his way of maintaining the status quo, i.e. the 43-term white male monopoly of the presidency.

    Anyway, unless you just want to sit back and watch Kos endorse the white man (Edwards) at the expense of Obama, then we should all weigh in on the issue of whether Kos is an aristocratic Salvadoron right-winger who is connected to the CIA and has received monies from the Overseas Private Investment Council.

    The Indictment of Markos Alberto Moulitsas ZÚÑIGA by Justice and History.

  14. metricpenny

    Your final paragraph says it all for me. Of all the candidates, Senator Obama is the one that I believe can best relate to me.

    In that this is a presidential campaign, we must not demand he speak only to issues affecting Black Americans and telling us only what we are comfortable in hearing. In order for Senator Obama to be elected — the only cadidate that I think if elected President will make a conscious effort to improve the conditions for blacks in America — he has to appeal to ALL Americans.

    While much has been reported about Senator Clinton receiving the only standing ovation during the PBS Democratic candidate forum televised on June 28th, I for one was offended by her in making the HIV statement. I did take some comfort in believing the audience was applauding the statement she made, and not applauding HER because she made the statement.

    I have no problem with characterizing Bill Clinton as the first black president; however, his marriage is an interracial one.

    I for one have been unsuccessful in my career in walking that tightrope that Senator Obama seems to have mastered. Instead of talking trash about him, I’m taking tips.

    Instead of vociferously voicing my discontent with the current acts performing in the three-ring circus that is the American political arena, I’m going to vent with my vote.

    Maybe with my ballot I can assist him in graduating from tightrope walking to running the show.

  15. Rick

    “OT: Interesting backstory regarding the Hot Ghetto Mess website and BET telecast.”

    RE: equal opportunity exploiter?

    I guess her logic is that since the established media companies are already making black people look like idiots — and making a fortune at doing so — then there’s no harm for a black start-up to get into the act?

  16. Denise

    LOL… I hear you, Rick.

    I was actually surprised to learn that the creator is a woman who lives in my hometown.

    Honestly, I have yet to see someone forced to particpate in this Y2K minstrelsy at gunpoint. That’s the real tragedy.

  17. I must be a hope monger because I’m sick of the self imposed alienation. I’m tired of the having to take a side and pick who im gonna be ‘down with’. People want to move beyond that I want to bridge the gap. I actually want to live out the dream of Dr. King rather than use it as a club to beat people over the head with.

  18. Katie

    Yes, Rikyrah, I derived from that diary that Obama’s candidacy presents Americans with a unique opportunity to evolve as humans. There are many who are currently not supporting him solely because they don’t believe he can get elected — a misguided and cynical approach that will get us nothing but the same old tired politics. Once he actually gets the nomination, they will likely reluctantly jump on board. If he is elected, I predict that our country will experience previously unknown spasms of personal growth. We may actually regain our ability to make certain sacrifices for the common good. We might actually begin to look at Repubs as human beings again (although I personally wonder about that one :)) and we will be having all kinds of conversations about race and class that were previously ignored or shoved under the rug. I look forward to it.

  19. rikyrah

    If he get the nomination, I have to admit, I’m going to just crack up for many a day. It will be mind boggling on a lot of levels.

  20. Can we agree that bigotry is alive and kicking in the good ole US of A? Sometime around 1998 the KKK walked into someone’s backyard and burned a cross in Virginia. The judge found them not guilty based on freedom of speech. Do “black” people really believe Senator Obama is not aware of such things? As long as we allow “white” men and females to rule the government at it’s highest levels, this stuff will not end.

    Would Hillary feel comfortable taking a train from Long Beach CA and getting off at the Compton station and walking ’round the town shaking hands with all the people giving her “I care about African-Americans” and AIDS speech?

    The point is, she can not represent the poor and the oppressed in the USA like a man that had to work his way to the top; that had to deal with bigotry because of his skin color. He is on a tightrope imposed by “white” America and demands of “black” America. The only way to change those standards is by getting him elected to Pres and praying he does not get assassinated for his efforts on behalf of people of all colors.

    First post I read on your blog, so do not know how you feel about the slaughter of innocent women and children in Iraq. Hillary supported that, Senator Obama did not. His empathy may come from seeing the slaughter of innocent desendents of slaves in the USA. I hope the black community gives him their united support.

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